A Short Analysis of William Dunbar’s ‘Done is a battell on the dragon blak’

On one of the earliest Easter poems

As Easter approaches, we’re going to share some of our favourite Easter-themed poems over the next couple of weeks, in the run-up to Easter Day. First up, a wonderful late medieval poem. ‘Done is a battell on the dragon blak’: as opening lines go, it’s one of the most arresting. Sometimes alternately titled ‘On the Resurrection of Our Lord’, the poem is a masterpiece of Scottish medieval poetry. The author of this barn-storming opener was the medieval Scottish poet William Dunbar (c. 1465-c. 1530).

Done is a battell on the dragon blak,
Our campion Christ confoundit has his force;
The yettis of hell are broken with a crak,
The signe triumphall raisit is of the cross,
The divillis trymmillis with hiddous voce,
The saulis are borrowit and to the bliss can go,
Chyst with his bloud our ransonis dois indoce:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.

Dungin is the deidly dragon Lucifer,
The crewall serpent with the mortall stang;
The auld kene tegir, with his teith on char,
Whilk in a wait has lyne for us so lang,
Thinking to grip us in his clowis strang;
The merciful Lord wald nocht that it were so,
He made him for to failye of that fang.
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.

He for our saik that sufferit to be slane,
And lyk a lamb in sacrifice was dicht,
Is lyk a lion risen up agane,
And as a gyane raxit him on hicht;
Sprungen is Aurora radious and bricht,
On loft is gone the glorius Apollo,
The blisfull day depairtit fro the nycht:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.

The grit victour again is rissen on hicht,
That for our querrell to the deth was woundit;
The sun that wox all pale now schynis bricht,
And, dirkness clerit, our faith is now refoundit;
The knell of mercy fra the heaven is soundit,
The Cristin are deliverit of their wo,
The Jowis and their errour are confoundit:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.

The fo is chasit, the battell is done ceis,
The presone broken, the jevellouris fleit and flemit;
The weir is gon, confermit is the peis,
The fetteris lowsit and the dungeon temit,
The ransoun made, the prisoneris redeemit;
The field is win, ourcomin is the fo,
Dispulit of the tresur that he yemit:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchro.

For the twentieth-century Scottish modernist poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, it was William Dunbar, rather than Robert Burns, who stood at the beginning of the great tradition of Scottish literature. He wrote poems for state occasions, such as ‘The Thrissil and the Rois’ (i.e. ‘The Thistle and the Rose’), a Scots poem written to mark the wedding of King James IV of Scotland to Princess Margaret Tudor of England in 1503.

‘Done is a battell on the dragon blak’ takes as its theme the Resurrection, and casts Christ as a crusading knight, battling the ‘black dragon’ of Lucifer, the Devil, following the Crucifixion and prior to his Resurrection. William Dunbar’s poem is not only one of the first great Scottish poems but also one of the earliest great Easter poems. Although some of the language is easily decipherable, at other times the gap between our own time and Dunbar’s world of early sixteenth-century Scotland is only too apparent; you can read a modern translation of the poem here.

For instance, Dunbar’s lines using the image of the tiger to convey the monstrous power of evil,

The auld kene tegir, with his teith on char,
Whilk in a wait has lyne for us so lang,
Thinking to grip us in his clowis strang;

Can be translated into modern English as ‘The old sharp tiger with his teeth ajar / Which has lain in wait for us so long / Hoping to grip us in his strong claws’. Once we’ve discovered the meaning of the words, e.g. ‘clowis’ is ‘claws’, we can return to the original and savour the crunch and the feel of Dunbar’s language, which is medley of powerful sounds, strong consonants and well-placed alliteration: ‘Whilk in a wait’ is rather splendid.

More medieval poems can be found here, and you can find our pick of the best works of medieval literature here.

Image: The Opening page of Dunbar’s “The Goldyn Targe” in the Chepman and Myllar Prints, Edinburgh, 1508, via Wikimedia Commons.


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Posted on March 18, 2018, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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